Life

What Pee-wee Herman’s Rise, Fall, And Comeback Taught Me About Heroes

With great affection, my father often tells a story about my younger brother and me running around in the front yard. There’s also a slight hint of annoyance whenever he tells it, but it’s the kind of irritation that parents with young children are allowed. Especially when their kids’ favorite television program showcases the most random, sing-song ideas of a bow tie-wearing man-child.

“You two used to run around the yard and sing that damn thing over and over again,” he laughs over the phone. In the background, my mother emits an audible sigh as he continues: “‘Connect the dots, la la la-la! Connect the dots, la la la-la!‘ All the damn time.”

Anyone who grew up with their faces glued to a television set on Saturday mornings in the late ’80s and early ’90s knows the tune without clicking on the link above. It comes from Pee-wee’s Playhouse, the utterly ridiculous children’s show that featured comedian Paul Reubens’ iconic Pee-wee Herman character for five seasons. Like Mister Rogers’ Neighborhood before, during, and after it, Playhouse introduced kids to a variety of characters who all lived in or near a specific community. For Rogers, these were the residents of his own typically suburban neighborhood and those who lived in the land of Make-Believe. For Pee-wee, it was a playhouse on top of a weird claymation mountain that looked like it’d been designed by artists and builders who were dropping acid more than drinking coffee.

But I was just a kid, so I didn’t think anything was wrong with a talking chair named Chairry with big googly eyes and movable arms with which she’d tickle Pee-wee regularly. Nor did I think too much about a globe named Globey whose penchant for map puns was just above my intelligence at the time. Pee-wee’s Playhouse was a big, magical world of multi-colored, fast-paced things that engaged me on a level little else could. I was a weird, loner of a kid, so when I saw this guy on television whose style of dress mirrored my own, I couldn’t help but feel some sort of camaraderie with him. Even if he was just a fictional character developed by an actor, Pee-wee was more real to me then than the park across the street whose bullies weren’t too fond of my bow ties.

Recently, Pee-wee’s Big Holiday star Stephanie Beatriz told me that working with Reubens on the new Netflix film “felt like I was coming back to meet an old friend, and we just picked up where we left off.” Because, she continued, like so many of us who grew up with Pee-wee, “he was something different.” I felt the same way when Playhouse was added to the streaming service in 2014. Both it and the 1985 film Pee-wee’s Big Adventure were there for the bingeing, and I relished the opportunity to watch it all again.

My reluctance is best explained by an offhand joke my father made during our conversation. He explained that, while mom thought Playhouse just didn’t make any sense, he saw value in our watching it because it was educational. That and, along with Pee-wee’s goofy delivery, it reminded him of shows he’d watched as a kid, like Captain Kangaroo and anything starring Soupy Sales. However, his support dwindled in 1991 when Reubens was arrested for exposing himself at an adult theater in Sarasota, Fla. on July 26, 1991. Or as my dad joked, he’d gone to jail for competing in “elbow aerobics.”

I was only 6 years old when news of Reubens’ arrest and the resulting scandals (both the alleged attempted bribery and the deputy-provided bail money), and I’m pretty sure my father had made the same (or a similar) joke at the time. Hence I didn’t quite understand what all the fuss was about. All I knew was that Playhouse was no longer on television, and that something else had taken its place during the bout of Saturday morning cartoons I regularly enjoyed.

Dad’s joke notwithstanding, my parents never went out of their way to disparage Pee-wee. They knew how important the character was to me. Not only did I own and often wear a grey glen plaid suit and bow-ties, I also possessed a pull-string talking Pee-wee doll. (Hearing a chorus of “ha ha,” “heh heh heh” and “I know you are but what am I?” in our house was an all-too common occurrence.) Tearing down the idols and dreams of kids isn’t exactly the best technique for parents and caregivers, so despite the media’s insistence on accomplishing these goals, my parents chose not to participate. They also rightfully shielded me from much of what was being said — not that I understood any of it.

It wasn’t until high school that I truly understood what Reubens had done and why the media — and to a lesser extent, my parents — had reacted as they did. As an Entertainment Weekly feature published weeks after his arrest put it, “nothing brings a star crashing to earth like the words sex scandal, and this particular scandal.” Especially when said star is a “kid-show host charged with exposing himself in a porno theater.”

The socially awkward teenager that I was, high school felt more like a series of trials than anything else. So I retreated into the comforts afforded me by my favorite movies and television shows. This resulting nostalgic spiral led me back to Playhouse and Big Adventure, as well as the 1988 sequel Big Top Pee-wee and some of the character’s first appearances, like The Pee-wee Herman Show on Broadway, which later became an HBO special, and Cheech & Chong’s Next Movie.

Rediscovering Pee-wee as a soon-to-be adult was a revelation. When I was 6, I never picked up on the subtle adult humor that Reubens had strewn throughout his films and shows. (I wasn’t supposed to.) But as a teenager? It was amazing, and it made me fall back in love with the goofy manchild who I’d always thought of as my personal superhero. And then I read about Sarasota.

Any high school-aged boy who claims not to know what masturbation is is a liar. So when I stumbled across an old article about the 1991 arrest, I knew precisely what my father’s “elbow aerobics” joke had meant. That, and I understood why everyone had freaked out. This guy was famous for playing a popular children’s show character, and he’d been arrested for jacking off in an adult theater. Not a good look, especially since this discovery coincided with what was going on in the Roman Catholic Church at the time. My family was Catholic, and seeing as how I was a student at a Catholic high school, the church’s problem with pedophile priests was all too real. So combined with this and Reubens’ 2002 arrest for possessing child pornography, things still weren’t looking good for Pee-wee.

The more I revisited my childhood hero as an adult, the more I began to realize that everyone makes mistakes — even Pee-wee Herman. Some mistakes are more egregious than others, yes, but sometimes everything about an otherwise awful situation can coalesce into a beautiful, poignant second chance. That’s exactly what happened for Reubens, though not just because his child pornography charge was dropped for an obscenity charge due to juridical misinterpretation. (Reubens defended himself by saying he collected ‘vintage erotica’ and wasn’t aware of the contents of everything he possessed.) It happened because despite all the sh*t that was levied against him, he was able to take it all in stride. That, and he never abandoned me, Stephanie Beatriz and the rest of the country’s thirtysomethings.

Two moments I wasn’t fully aware of when they happened stick out for me now that I’ve seen them in retrospect. The first is Reubens’ appearance in character as Pee-wee at the 1991 MTV Music Video Awards, which happened after the initial brouhaha. Most will either commend his “Heard any good jokes lately?” line or the fact that the crowd gave him a standing ovation — both of which are fantastic moments. However, for the 6-year-old fan the clip reverts me into, it’s Pee-wee’s characteristic laugh that gets me. That Reubens/Pee-wee could still utter a few ha’s and heh’s at that time speaks volumes.

The second was his 1999 interview with Jay Leno on The Tonight Show. Despite the 1991 arrest, Reubens remained active throughout the decade — taking film and television gigs here and there, including a recurring role on Murphy Brown. But the less-than-superhero film Mystery Men saw him return to the media spotlight when the movie’s marketing department decided to send him out onto the interview circuit. What resulted was a hilariously honest exchange with Leno designed to acknowledge the Pee-wee character for what it was, and to give Reubens room to breathe in his first major interview since the MTV Music Video Awards.

He was shy, vulnerable, funny and completely willing to acknowledge the fact that he “was kind of a weird kid” who kept a “booger chart” on his bedroom wall. I never did anything like that when I was 6, but the fact that Reubens had publicly admitted to being one of the “weird” ones made me laugh when I first heard him say it. I might have even included a few heh’s in there, too.

Perhaps variations on this indirect exchange — Reubens’ honesty and my nostalgic giggles — was why Pee-wee never really faded from our great big collective pop cultural memory. Many still think of the Playhouse host as a hero, a man who’d made a few bad decisions and come out the other side. And as a testament to this, Pee-wee was greeted by, per the New York Times, “the happy gurglings and raucous cheers of a thousand reborn inner children romping around a favorite playground” during his live stage show revival in 2010 — the same sounds that Pee-wee’s Big Holiday will likely inspire from those watching at home.

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